Rancin Fer waited until the crew of the barge was just about to lift away the gangplank before crossing it. He knew that his quarry had to be on board and he didn’t want to give them any time to slip away before the barge left the dock.
He quickly examined each one of his fellow passengers as the crew went about getting the barge under way. As he looked at face after face, recognizing no one, his fears from the night before resurfaced. What if he had only dreamed the conversation between his assailants just after he had been mugged late the previous afternoon? What if the pair weren’t really traveling back to Dargon by barge? What would he tell his boss?
Tyrus Vage had sent Rancin to Kenna with a mission to deliver three objects to Troril Hancot: a mold for a small, magical, darningfly-shaped charm; ten Marks; and a letter outlining the deal for Troril to produce a great many darningfly charms, funded by the coins. Vage intended to flood the markets of Dargon with them, with the intent of ruining Sferina’s magical charm business with shoddy, magicless trinkets.
Rancin had arrived in Kenna by barge the previous day and had set out for Hancot’s home immediately, anticipating a quick delivery, a night in one of Kenna’s inns, and a quick trip back home down the Coldwell to Dargon. Instead, he had been mugged by two young men only a few blocks from the riverside and robbed of his delivery. Thanks to his well-muscled stomach and thick head, the blows of the muggers had not rendered him immediately unconscious, which is how he had managed to overhear not only their names — Darrow and Murlak — but their plans to take a barge back to Dargon.
The boat was well away from the quays of Kenna, and Rancin had still not spotted the two thieves among the passengers. No one had the right jut of chin under long, blond hair; no one had the properly full ginger beard and grim smile. They had to be on board, though; he couldn’t have imagined it. He was sure they hadn’t known he’d been listening to them, since they were walking away by the time he had succumbed fully to the blows. Perhaps they were just disguised?
Just in case, Rancin pondered how he was going to tell his boss about his loss of the money. Tyrus Vage was not a man who treated bad news lightly. The once-powerful Dargon merchant, now down on his luck, had never been an easy-going fellow in the best of times. Rancin knew that his boss would be furious with him; the merchant hated to have his schemes go awry. Considering how Vage tended to react to bad news, he had to find those objects! His muggers might be disguised, but they couldn’t disguise the mold, the letter, and the money. He would continue to look for the two boys, but he would also look for the objects no matter where they might be hidden.
Murlak was sure he was going to go crazy long before he ever got to Dargon. He had only been on the barge for two days and a night, but he had never been so bored in all his life, not even when Darrow had taken all the money away in Kenna.
There was just nothing to do on a barge! There was barely enough room to move around at all, much less run. The barge seemed to move swiftly, with the bank rushing by and all, but it just wasn’t the same as dashing about on his own legs, or with a horse under him.
At night, when the barge tied up close to shore, Murlak got to stretch his legs some. He wasn’t able to run very far, though. He didn’t like the woods very much, and he didn’t want to get lost out there either.
As he walked along the length of the barge, Murlak thought about the interesting things he had seen in the last two days. The most interesting was Rancin himself. He and his friend Darrow had been given disguises at the Taut Sheets two nights previously. Darrow had dyed his hair from yellow to black and had magically grown a beard in just a few moments. His own hair had been cut, and his beard had been shaved all the way off. Then one of the girls had put a blob of some enchanted goo on his nose that had changed its shape completely. This, along with different clothes, meant that they no longer looked like the pair who had mugged Rancin in Kenna. They even had new names: he was Birl, and Darrow was Jekk. Murlak couldn’t help but giggle when he walked past Rancin without being recognized. The frown the balding man gave at the giggle only made Murlak want to giggle more, but he usually just walked away. He knew how dangerous it would be to have Vage’s man look too closely at him or Darrow, but he loved hiding right out in plain sight.
The group of four that Darrow had pointed out were also pretty interesting. The well-dressed man was named Anarr, and he and the bard, Simona, were often together talking. Murlak was sure that Anarr was some kind of magician; he had seen the two of them doing some kind of spell or something once. Simona didn’t turn into a frog or anything, though, and Darrow didn’t believe Murlak’s stories anyway.
The younger man with them was some kind of servant. His name was Edmond, but Murlak didn’t see much of him since he spent most of his time in one of the cargo shelters the barge had. The fourth man, Kal, was usually among the crew of the barge.
The merchant with the large chest hadn’t been interesting at all. Norilg, his name was, and he only cared about his cargo. He and his guard, Offus, were never far from their wares and never talked to anyone about anything.
Except for that morning, when Norilg had raised a fuss as everyone was getting back on the barge. He insisted that someone had gone through his things in the night, though nothing was missing. No one else had been bothered, but Murlak wondered who had gone through the merchant’s stuff.
Murlak finally reached his destination. He had been chatting with the shepherd every chance he could. Her name was Lidala, and she was ancient, at least twenty-five. She was also the only woman on the barge. Well, the only one he would approach, anyway. She hadn’t agreed to roll with him yet, but he knew she couldn’t say no forever.
Lidala stayed in the back of the barge with the animals. Murlak didn’t like that part of the barge much. All he had learned about animals from living in Dargon as a shadow boy and after was to stay away from stray dogs, ‘specially if they had food. The sheep weren’t too bad, though they smelled funny, and the cows were very big and very smelly. Lidala didn’t have any cows to mind, which made Murlak happy. He hoped that the dung had been shoveled over the side already.
The shepherd smiled when Murlak walked up. He smiled back and put his arms around her waist, leaning in for a quick kiss that he tried to make last longer. Lidala laughed and pushed him away, but not far enough to make him move his hands. She said, “Not here, Birl, it’s too public.”
Murlak looked around, and saw only animals. It was dusk, and most of the crew were in the front of the barge getting ready to tie it up for the night. No one else came back here. He wondered why Lidala thought the empty back of a barge was too public, but knew that he wouldn’t get an answer if he asked her.
Instead, he said, “We could go in there,” pointing to the nearest cargo shelter. Lidala surprised him by nodding, grabbing his hand, and dragging him right into the stuffy, box-stacked shack.
She led him between the boxes, which formed a kind of hall, to an open space within, next to one of the walls. A lit candle lantern sat there next to some blankets, and Murlak wondered how they had gotten there. Lidala sat on the blankets and drew him down next to her. Soon he was too busy to wonder about handy light and padding.
Murlak found himself being drawn along by Lidala’s actions, hardly needing to start anything. Before he knew it, they were both naked and lying down. They stayed that way for longer than he would have believed possible. By the time Lidala finally pushed him gently away and closed her eyes, he was very nearly tired out himself.
He was resting against the wall of the shed, enjoying looking at the shepherd in her mussed robe, when he realized that the buzzing behind him was voices from the other side of the wall. He pressed his ear against the wood and listened in.
He heard a deep voice saying, “… on something within the statue. Look in there, and you will see a small bundle of material. Within that …”
Lidala murmured in her sleep, reaching out toward him and quieting when her hand found his chest. Murlak put his ear back to the wall, but there were no more voices from the other side. He looked at Lidala, and then at the wall, shrugged his shoulders, and snuggled back down next to the old, but pretty, shepherd.
Darrow knew that he and Murlak were in trouble. That morning, the second early morning on the barge and beginning their third day there, another commotion had broken out. The group of crafters had complained that their property had been gone through sometime in the night, just like the merchant Norilg the morning before. Like the previous violation, nothing had been taken, and the barge was rife with suppositions as to who was doing it and why.
Darrow knew both who and why, but he had no proof. Rancin had to know that the thieves who had robbed him were on the barge, else why had he boarded it in the first place? Fortunately, he didn’t know who they were, so he was ransacking everyone’s belongings to find his stolen property. It was only a matter of time before he and Murlak were subject to the same search. He needed a place to put the items that Rancin would never find.
Unfortunately, the task seemed harder than unraveling a web without alerting the spider. There weren’t many hiding places on the barge, and none of them were very secure. When he had told Murlak his suspicions about Rancin the day before, his friend had gamely tried to come up with solutions. He had suggested Norilg’s chest, which had already been searched. Darrow had already thought of that. The problem was that it could easily be searched again, and the merchant’s guard was more alert now, not to mention that Norilg had full access to his own chest and might uncover anything hidden there. Murlak had next suggested something really disgusting to do with the animals, which Darrow had dismissed immediately.
That morning, he had been spurred back into his search by the commotion of the crafters. As they’d reviewed their options, Murlak had mentioned overhearing the evening before something concerning a compartment inside a statue. His friend had checked and learned that the statue belonged to that strange foursome of Anarr, Simona, Kal, and Edmond.
Darrow didn’t know whether the compartment was large enough for the three items he was carrying, but it was their best chance. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have given it a thought. He didn’t believe Murlak’s stories that Anarr was a wizard of some kind, but the man did have an air of authority about him and he treated everyone except Simona with extreme contempt. Not only did this keep Edmond strictly to his task of guarding the statue, but it also made Darrow disinclined to mess with any property of his.
Luck, however, was with them. Only moments after Murlak mentioned the statue, Darrow overheard Anarr and the captain of the barge confirming the mid-day pause that would allow Anarr to leave. He couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity.
Darrow spent the morning preparing. He knew that Simona had no real interest in either the statue or the guard. The fact that she was a bard worried him some due to reputation the songsters had of being truth-finders as well as truth-tellers, but as long as she stayed to herself, she wouldn’t ever become involved. Her companion, Kal, spent most of his time somewhere near Simona or with the barge’s crew, so he wasn’t a factor Darrow needed to plan around either. That left Edmond, usually slated to guard the statue, as the only element that Darrow needed to deal with to gain access to the secret hiding place.
Once again, Murlak came to the rescue, proving that Darrow’s loyalty to his friend wasn’t misplaced. The redhead had suggested distracting Edmond instead of knocking him out as Darrow had toyed with. Darrow had asked some discreet questions, engaged in some casual conversation, and learned all he needed to know.
The barge tied up to shore with practiced ease at midday. Darrow watched Anarr walk across the gangplank and his elation made him feel lighter than a drifting milkweed seed. Now if only everything else went as smoothly.
He should have known it wouldn’t. Darrow drifted casually into the back half of the barge and checked to be sure that Murlak was in position. He found his friend leaning against the wall of the shack next to the one with the statue in it, the board leaning with him, staring up into the sky with a bored look on his face.
“What are you doing?” he whispered stridently. “Why aren’t you ready?”
Murlak looked at Darrow and said, “I was waiting for the signal, Dar.”
Darrow seethed, since he had sent Murlak back with the explicit instruction to get ready. There had been no “signal” to wait for. Knowing that it was both futile and time-wasting to point this out to him, Darrow smacked him on the side of the head and said, “There’s your signal, Murlak. And hurry!”
Murlak frowned petulantly at him and rubbed the side of his head. Then he set the board flat on the deck and began unpacking the dice and cups. Darrow went to the far side of the shack and peeked around the edge, only to see Edmond coming quickly. He set himself up to distract the man and keep an eye on Murlak at the same time, and when Edmond came around the corner he said, “Greetings, friend.”
“Hello,” said Edmond.
Thinking as quickly as he could, he pointed at the wrapped bundle in the shack. “Quite a burden you’ve got there. Must be heavy to haul.”
“Not really,” the man replied. “We’ve got a pack mule for that.”
“Ah,” said Darrow. He glanced beyond Edmond and saw that Murlak was almost set up. He groped frantically for something to say, and finally came out with, “The Stevene said that the animals were given to us by God, to ease our burdens, but that we must treat them well.” He struggled to hide his wince: he hadn’t intended to be of such a well known religion. But it was the first thing that had come to mind, probably from all of those Cyruzhian brothers in the streets when he had been a shadow boy.
He saw Edmond grimace, though, and the man said, “Yes, well, it was nice talking to you.”
Darrow checked over Edmond’s shoulder, smiled slightly, nodded, and went around the corner. He heard Murlak call out, “Psst! Buddy!” He paused, listened to the dice rattle and the pair converse for a moment. It wasn’t long before the game was going strong. Darrow smiled widely, and slipped into the shed that shared a wall with the one Edmond was “guarding”.
The cargo shelters weren’t very substantial constructions. Intended mostly to segregate cargo by owner or destination, and to keep fragile objects out of the wind and weather, they had bare board walls and canvas roofs. It was no effort at all for Darrow to climb to the top of the wall and slip over it under the cloth roofing, and soon he was standing by the only object in the shed: a canvas rucksack.
Kneeling beside the thing, Darrow quietly unfastened the buckles and ties, and slid the cloth over what it enclosed. The statue he revealed was large; it was about waist-height on a tall man, and maybe two-thirds that wide. The figure was that of a man sitting cross-legged with a sword across his knees. The only color relieving the black stone of the statue came from the silver of the sword, the shiny red stones of its angry eyes, and the startlingly white teeth that fenced the partially open, grimacing mouth with their sharp points. Darrow knew nothing about art, but he could see the strength in the well-muscled body, and the anger in the features of the face on the tilted back head.
Darrow left off admiring the thing and got back to business. He poked and prodded at the statue all over, trying to move the arms and sword, touching its back, its knees, its ears. He couldn’t find any mechanisms or hidden compartments anywhere. Then he remembered what Murlak had overheard, about being able to see into the cavity. Looking at the statue, that could only mean one thing.
He rose up on his knees and looked into the open mouth. He could clearly make out an object, cloth of some kind, down in the throat of the statue. Grinning, Darrow fished his own bundle of objects out of his pocket. It was wrapped in oilskin, and didn’t make a very large package, but when he tried to shove it into the statue’s mouth, it just didn’t fit.
He almost cursed aloud, but he was reminded of how close Edmond was by a whoop of triumph from the man just a few paces away. He tried again, wedging it corner first, then end first, rewrapping the items to make the bundle smaller, but nothing worked. The metal darningfly mold was just too wide to fit through the statue’s mouth.
Darrow was ready to give up when his finger slipped off the package. He grazed the teeth of the statue and found out that the points were very sharp. Blood oozed from his finger even before he felt the pain of the wound. Before he could get the digit into his mouth, a drop of blood fell onto the statue’s tongue. Darrow almost yelped in fright when the statue’s mouth opened very wide in response.
He watched the statue for a moment, but nothing more happened and the mouth stayed open. Thanking his luck once again, he slipped his bundle into the large opening, but was dismayed by the fact that it didn’t go in very far. He looked closer, and found that the object that had been in there was blocking the cavity. Darrow reached carefully inside the statue, keeping clear of the teeth and hoping that the mouth wouldn’t close on its own and remove his hand. Trusting his luck, he grabbed hold of the somewhat slimy cloth bundle and pulled it from the compartment. Reluctantly slipping it into his pocket for the moment, he easily slid his own bundle down the throat of the statue. When he removed his hand, the mouth closed back to its former dimension. He looked into the mouth and figured that no one would be able to tell the difference.
Darrow closed the rucksack around the statue again, and returned to the wall he had climbed over. There were no boxes to climb on here, but he knew he could just jump up and grab the top of the wall. As he jumped, he felt a wave of heat rush over him and he missed his grip. He landed as quietly as he could and turned to see whether Edmond and Murlak in the doorway had heard him, but they seemed engrossed in something between them. He tried again, succeeding this time, and soon he was out of the statue’s shed.
A short while later, he met Murlak at the side of the barge. His friend said, “Did you do it?” as he hurried to catch up to Darrow.
Darrow said, “Yes, it’s done. Rancin isn’t going to find his stuff in there. Well, he might see it but he won’t recognize it.” He fished the wad of cloth he had taken from the statue out of his pocket, and threw it overboard.
“Great!” said Murlak. “We’re safe, and only two more days to Dargon.”
“You did well with Edmond, Murlak,” said Darrow. “You kept him occupied very well.”
“Thanks, but it was easy. He won every round, so his attention was very focused on the game.”
“That was a good idea. I didn’t know you had loaded dice, though.”
“I didn’t do anything to help him, Darrow. He won all by himself, like he was a cup full of luck. Too bad it all ran out when the die broke. That was the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, too.”
Darrow said, “No matter. He didn’t see me, and that’s what counts. Do you think he’ll be up for another game in a few days? We still need to get the stuff back out of the statue, after all.”
“Don’t worry, Darrow,” Murlak said. “That’ll be no problem at all.”
On the night of the eleventh of Sy, Darrow found himself walking through the forest headed for Dargon. The barge, which had been due into Dargon on the eighth was going to end up being four days late, and all because of the strange accidents that had been happening. Heavy cross-currents slowed the barge down, and even with the river swollen with rain it had been constantly running into sandbars and snags. Eddies caught them close to shore more than once and spun the entire barge around, causing cargo to have to be restowed and the shepherd, Lidala, to be fished out of the river. Then there was the time the steering oars broke and the barge ended up headed along a minor branch for bells before they could fix them and turn it around.
Rancin had also been a problem. Every morning, more belongings had been searched. Darrow’s own bedroll had been ransacked the very night he had hidden the loot. When everyone had been searched, the cycle had begun again. Rancin had been smart enough to complain himself one morning to allay suspicion, leaving the barge’s crew as the only remaining suspects. The man had shadowed everyone on board, asking questions or just staring. Darrow was only too happy to be away from those angry eyes, especially since the extra time the accidents had added to their travel meant that his beard and hair were starting to show blond roots.
To make matters worse, Murlak had been driving him crazy. The rain that had started on the seventh had been uncomfortable since there weren’t enough cabins for everyone to shelter in, and it had continued day after day, only ending that morning. The daily problems kept the barge from making its normal progress down the river, which meant that more often than not they weren’t able to moor at the regular campsites along the river, sleeping on board instead. They had also been forced to stay out of the way during the day as the crew dealt with problem after problem. His flighty friend was feeling closed in and it was driving Darrow out of his mind. To cap it all off, Edmond hadn’t been at all receptive to another game of chance. The general air of chaos on board the barge had strengthened his resolve to guard the statue.
Darrow, fed up with everything going on aboard the barge, took the opportunity presented to him when the barge moored for the last time just a few leagues from Dargon. He told Murlak that he was going to get some people to help distract Edmond from the statue when the barge docked. Murlak had begged to come along, but Darrow had convinced him that someone needed to keep an eye on the statue. In truth, Darrow didn’t believe the statue needed watching, but he needed to be away from Murlak for a few bells at least. Fortunately, his friend took the responsibility seriously, and gamely agreed to stay aboard until the barge made fast to the Coldwell docks the next day.
Darrow made it to the city well before dawn, and caught a few bells’ sleep. He woke up in the second bell of the twelfth of Sy and, after tidying up and getting some food, he made his way back to Sferina’s office.
Soon he was sitting in front of her desk, the scent of lilacs filling the air. Sferina was smiling, her hands folded on the desk in front of her. “It is good to see you, Darrow. Black hair suits you. I hope that you were successful.”
Darrow said, “Oh, yes, we were. We made it to Kenna before Rancin, and ambushed him before he got his goods where they were going. I found not only the darningfly mold, but two other items: a pouch with ten Marks in it, and a letter sealed with Vage’s sigil.”
Sferina was silent for a moment, staring into space. Suddenly, she grinned and said, “Excellently done, Darrow. That letter must detail Vage’s plans. It will be all I need to get him sanctioned before the council. Where are these things?”
Darrow shifted uncomfortably in the very comfortable chair before saying, “Well, Murlak and I had some difficulty with our return transportation. Rancin followed us, and though we were in disguise, we had to hide the items. Murlak is with them, still on the barge. It has taken longer than expected for the barge to arrive, but it should do so today.”
Sferina’s smile had gone predatory. She said, “Get me the mold and the letter, Darrow. That’s all I want. If you can deliver those two things, I will give each of you a Mark, and you can keep half of the coins you found as well. I need that letter, Darrow. More than the darningfly mold. Understand?”
Darrow’s eyes were wide at the thought of all that wealth. He nodded energetically and said, “Of course, milady Sferina, of course. No problem. By tonight they will be on your desk. Thank you, thank you!”
“You’re welcome, Darrow. Now go, and don’t fail me.”